Americans: State vs Federal. Why is it a big deal?

I have asked this before but the Terri Schiavo case causes me to ask again.

Please explain to me the whole State/Federal govt thing. Why is their hostility when the Federal govt decides something?

Is the US really just 50 individual countries who gather under one united flag when dealing with the rest of the world?

I can’t understand the division between “hey the Fed’s should butt out that is a state responsibility” and “we are all Americans”.

I come from a country with no states. Just the central govt (ok there are councils for individual area’s but there power is very limited) and I just can’t wrap my head around the animosity shown to Federal decisions or which things are state responsibilties and which are Federal.

Could someone please tell me
a) What States get to decide and what the Federal govt decides.
b) Why is it a big deal for States to be able to act as if they are seperate “countries”? Why do they seem so angry at Federal govt decisions?
c) Are the States only United when dealing with the rest of the world?
d) Is it possible that the US will just be many small countries one day?

I understand these may seem like idiotic questions, feel free to talk to me like I am 3 yrs old because I really don’t understand.

The simplest answer is “because we said so!” :wink:

However, you have to reference what the situation was like in 1787, when we decided to do things the way they’ve been done since. We’d just gotten over a seven-year-plus battle for our freedom, and much as it may insult modern Brits to say that, the fact of the matter is that the British governments of the day, featuring a rotating cast of Pelhams and Grenvilles and culminating in Lord North, espoused strong mercantilist policies that were basically “milk America for London’s benefit.”

On the other hand, the former Colonists were acutely aware that South Carolina or Delaware or Connecticut did not stand a chance of retaining its freedom against a determined opponent. Denmark, Mecklenburg, or Parma could have invaded any one of them. We were saved from losing to the British by remarkable generalship on our guys’ parts, stupidity bordering on the criminal on the part of some British generals, French intervention, rising antiwar sentiment in Britain itself, and a few other causes. The idea of a loose confederation with voluntary compliance had been tried for the past six years in the Articles of Confederation Congress, and was failing miserably.

So in loose summary, we were as paranoid as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs about giving a government power, yet acutely aware that none of the 13 independent states was strong enough to go it alone and that loose voluntary confederate status was not working.

So what we came up with was a system strong enough to survive, but with built in fail-safes in enabling X to deprive Y of power if it looks to X like Y is going to abuse it. The President has the power of vetoing laws he doesn’t like, but Congress can override his veto by a supermajority. The President can’t name a judge or cabinet secretary (=minister) without the Senate giving its OK. And in particular the federal government is supreme within its powers, but has only the powers expressly given it by the states in the Constitution, as amended, and those that can be construed to enable it to carry out the expressly given ones.

And this is a big deal to us, 225 years later, because it’s clear and obvious to us what happens when someone has uncontrolled access to power: Lord Acton’s epigram is acted out. We insist that some things are left to the individual states, some things are the proper prerogative of the national government, and some things are the business of neither of them, but the guaranteed right of the individual citizen.

First of all, remember that the US is a very large and populated place. Your home country of New Zealand is only about the size and population of an average state in the US. Obviously, people in different areas are going to need different things, and different laws - for example, Nevada (a highly desert state) might need strict water usage laws, while those same laws would be quite silly in Minnesota, Land of 10,000 lakes.

Also note the historical influence - after we kicked out the British, each of the former colonial governments had significant power, more than the States do today; they gave up some of this power to form the Union we are in now. Also, the Founding Fathers of the US were quite paranoid about government tyranny; that is why the US government is full of checks and balances, and having states & the federal government competing to supposed to reduce this effect.

As for your specific questions:

A) Generally, the Federal government prints the currency, maintains foreign relations/declares wars, regulates interstate and international trade, has jurisdiction over certain crimes (especially those commited by someone crossing state lines), does some large scale infrastructure programs like the Interstate highway, and has managed to run big programs like Medicare/Medicade and Social Security. I suggest reading the American Constitution (don’t worry, it is not that long) for a more detailed view of what powers the federal government has.

The States usually handle local crime/justice, have their own social welfare programs, build the streets, run the public schools & universities. and such. The States also have their own military forces, collectively known as the National Guard, that can be called up when need for state emergencies, or called up by the federal government to fight in wars.

B)Each State does have its own soverign powers, and thus don’t like it when the Fed infringes on them, much like various countries don’t like others threating embargoes to get them to change their domestic policies. This is because the people of a state may have interest that are opposed by the federal government.

For example, in the US, the legal age to consume alcohol is 21. Now, the citizens of several states in the US would like to lower the legal age in those states, but they can’t, due the backhanded influence of the federal government. You see, their is a federal tax on gasoline, that the Federal government collects, then gives to various states to fund road maintance. If those states lowered their drinking ages, the amount of funding they would get from that tax would be reduced, yet the citizens of that state would still have to pay the gasoline tax.

C) The States are United in more than than foreign policy - the federal government maintains a uniform set of Interstate trade regualations, for example.

D) Anything can happen, but I find it unlikely that the US will be broken up anytime in the next century or two. In the past, several states tried to break away from the Union, leading to the whole mess that was the American Civil War. No state could leave unless the other states wanted them to. And I doubt any state would really want to leave - the benifits of being in the Union generally outweight the cost.

“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
“All politics is local.”

Really, the discussion of this will probably get us moved out of GQ, because there are huge philosophical differences between what it means to be governed in this country. But I’ll try to forward a fair and balanced explanation:

Everything comes down to me knowing what’s best for me; my neighbors and myself being the best judge of what’s best for our neighborhood; our communally-elected city council to know what’s best for the city; and so on up the chain of government. (This is why we have no nationally elected posts [i.e., the electoral college elects the president, the populace do not]).

There’s a [editorializing deleted] trend, though, toward top-down thinking these days. The federal government must protect everyone because it’s obvious that we’re no longer capable of doing it ourselves. We can’t save for retirement; let Uncle Sam do it. I’m too stupid to use a seat belt; better make highway funding dependant on states’ passing laws obligating their use. And so on.

I hope I’m not being cynical, but I’m not even sure if the politics involved even adheres to their ideals about local governance (right) or dominating superpower (left) – I think it’s just people trying to preserve whatever little power they have at whatever level of government they happen to exist at.

The idea of a federal system is that the national (federal) government and the state governments each have their own spheres of influence where their word is supreme. There are many different federal systems (the U.S., Canada, the U.A.E., Bosnia, etc., etc.), and each tend to draw the line between the state and federal power differently.

There are several advantages to the federal system – for one thing, you can “vote with your feet.” When states* are allowed to have their own policies, it allows them to experiment with different ways of doing something which then allows the citizenry to decide which system they’d rather live under. It also, as Poly notes, serves as one level of the separation of powers, making it (theretically) difficult for any one person or faction to excersise absolute political control.

In the U.S., the main divide is ostensibly one of national security and commerce. While the federal government has a lot to say about health and welfare, it’s largely predicated on the broad federal power to regulate interstate commerce. States have the general police power to regulate the health, welfare, and morals of those within the state, and states vary widely in how they choose to execute this power.

Without getting in to GD territory here, the Schiavo case is engendering these comments because it is the Republican Party that seems to be leading the charge to have federal law trump Florida in a matter of central state power – the regulation of health and morals is the quintesential state authority. However, the same party is more typically associated with the banner of states’ rights.


  • I’m using “states” as the term for the individual political units, but other countries call them provinces, emirites, lander, etc…

Thank you guys. A lot to mull over.

I understand the history and the huge population. I’m still not sure on exactly what makes something a State affair rather then a Federal affair.

How can all states agree on things like crimes, State crimes vs Federal crimes. When seemingly more important things (rights wise) cause issues? Abortion is Federal yet marriage is State?

I really do appreciate this.

The easy answer is “The Constitution.” It’s laid out in writing.

The long answer, of course, is that it’s dependent upon what’s logical for a state to take care of as opposed to a federal government. Ninety percent of the division is common sense; it simply makes good sense that the federal government have primacy in areas like national defense, monetary policy, foreign affairs, etc. Matters like education can be handled at a state level, so they are.

Of course, opinions differ. My country (Canada) and the one you asked about (the USA) make mostly the same divisions between state/province and federal, but there are some differences. For instance, in Canada, criminal law is a federal affair; provinces govern only minor, or “summary,” offences, like traffic tickets and such. In the United States, it’s (mostly) a state affair.

Abortion is actually a state matter. The states determine how to regulate abortion providers, what kind of parental notification is required for minors, etc., and in the past individual states could decided whether to legalize abortion or not.

However, the Supreme Court has decided that according to the US Constitution, a woman is free to have an abortion, and struck down state laws that forbid abortions. The states must obey the Constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court is the arbiter of what the Constitution allows and forbids.

Similarly, states run their public schools, and determine how they are admnistered, what to teach, etc., but the Supreme Court has declared that the states cannot segregate the schools by race, or teach Young-Earth Creationism, because these violate the Constitution.

An interesting sidenote on the abortion issue: while the U.S. Congress cannot pass laws that forbid abortion, a bill was introduced to make it a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines in order to allow them to get an abortion that would require parental notification in their home state. Since it’s a multi-state affair, that gives the federal goverment juristiction over it.

Thanks Rick Jay. What about the abortion and marriage? Is it that one is about healthcare and the other is about legal formalities?

Does Canada have the same type of differences in state and federal laws as the US?

Maybe our populaation is just too small and I just can’t grasp the differences. To the best of my knowledge councils can only make “laws” about parking tickets and dog poop etc here.

This is what confuses me. Why is it ok for the federal govt to decree ceratin things over the State govts, yet other things are not ok.

In the Terri Schiavo case, are States afraid that euthanasia will become federally sanctioned?

A lot of these things are a matter of contemporary debate, but the basics are these –

  1. The Constitution, in Article I, Section 8, lists the powers of the federal government. Everything else is a state matter. (Article I of the Constitution:

  2. The Constitution also marks out a number of fundamental rights (mostly in the Bill of Rights, or the first 10 amendments to the constitution) that limit both state and federal government power.

So, using your examples, Article I, Section 8, says nothing about marriage, so the power to define and regulate marriage is a state matter. However, because the 14th Amendment guarantees as fundamental rights “equal protection” and “due process,” a state may not prohibit marriages between people of different races.

Regarding abortion, the Supreme Court found that several articles of the Bill of Rights imply a fundamental right to privacy, particularly with regard to reproduction, that the states may not interfere with.

Basically the Supreme Court decides if it’s OK.
The Constitution is a general guide nowadays because there are so many things now that were not issues then.
If someone doesn’t like a law that the feds pass they appeal it to district courts for a ruling on (among many possibilities) whether the law is the legitimate domain of the federal govt. each side of the arguement can appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court. When those guys decide it’s a done deal (for a while anyway).

Some of the reason for state’s rights comes from the fact that the original colonies were from different countries and had different laws. Louisiana was French and still has some striking differences today.

Why just stop at the state and federal levels? I’ve got a bunch more governments all trying to tell me what to do. Here’s a breakdown in ascending order of the powers I have to answer to.

City Government- Composed of a city council and a mayor, (elected positions) these folks run the police and fire departments as well as the parks and other local things.

County Government- Composed of commisioners with one elected leader. The borders overlap with the the city but the city isn’t in just one county. These people are responsible for marriage licences and have the sheriff’s department answer to them. This is a separate law enforcement agency from the police.

Metro Government- This is a regional body that deals with zoning and transportation issues. It was formed by the smaller bodies above giving power to a regional authority on matters that don’t stop at county or city boarders. I don’t think they have their own law enforcement branch unless you count the fare inspectors on the trains.

State Government- Now we’re up to the one of the ones you’ve heard about. We elect the governor and representatives to a two house system. This level has the state police as the enforcement arm.

Federal Government- You know about these guys. They’ve got the FBI for law enforcement and the national guard and the rest of the military if they really need it.

What’s it like where you are?

A typical sentiment from Americans begins, “I don’t want Washington telling me to…”

For some Americans, Washington is thousands of miles away and dominated by people of a somewhat different culture and world view.

Something to compare/contrast this to would be the current attempt to draft a constitution for the EU. I imagine many in Europe already saying, “I don’t want Brussels telling me to…” Fortunately for us, the US Constitution is only 12 pages vs the EU’s 500+.

I imagine whatever system the EU or any other large democratic union adopts will have similar geographic layers. Don’t be surprised if the EU even adopts something akin to the electoral college. Small countries/states don’t want to be dominated by large countries/states.

Simplified explanation.

The U.S. Constitution, effective 1789 and amended many times since, gives a specific list of powers that the federal government has. All other powers belong to the states and to individual citizens.

When a state law is in violation of the U.S. Constitution, the federal courts (including the Supreme Court) have the right to strike down a state law. In the case of abortion, the Supreme Court said that certain state abortion laws violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, dealing with due process of the law (a very controversial decision).

Given the political, cultural and economic variety in our huge country, we have found it better that most laws are made locally. One size does not fit all. Take capital punishment. In the Northeastern states, there have been 3 executions since 1976. In the Southern states, there have been 786. In the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, capital punishment has been outlawed since the 1850s, while the state of Texas has had 304 executions since 1976.

Oh, and if you’re puzzled by the newly passed federal law allowing the federal courts to review the Terri Schiavo case, so are many scholars of constituional law. Many believe that if that law is challenged in federal courts, it will be overturned as an unacceptable federal intervention into a state matter. In other words, that nothing in the U.S. Constitution permits federal intervention in such a case.

This goes back to the principle that the Constitution gives a specific lists of powers to the federal government, and all other powers belong to the states or to individuals.

Kiwi, as others have noted, a key difference is size and population. New Zealand is just a middling state to us.** All** your laws are state laws. Unless you’ve lived in the US for a period of time, you just cannot grasp how freaking big it is, and how diverse. NZ is reasonably homogeneous, and very compact. Your total population is 1/3 the size of just LA County, and total land area just half the size of California.

A lot of us wish we were New Zealand! :smiley:

LA County = Los Angeles County.

A few stray observations:

We haven’t mentioned the tenth amendment specifically. This item of the bill of rights, sometimes called the “State’s Rights” amendment, says:

The founders felt sufficiently strongly about the issue that they felt the had to underline it this way, mainly because of what Polycarp said. At the end of the day, the original 13 colonies were very touchy about retaining their own autonomy as much as possible, and a lot of them didn’t really like or trust each other very much.

The federal government can get rather creative in coming up with ways to coerce the state level. The right to regulate interstate commerce has been used as a blunt weapon many times, according to some. Threatening to cut off Federal funding for various things if a state doesn’t toe the line is another favorite - this was done with Federal highway funds during the 70’s to coerce states into enforcing the hated “double nickel” 55 mph speed limit, for instance.

It might behoove Europe to study what has happened in the US Federal system. There are any number of reasons why they claim the EU is NOT analogous, but give it time. They are introducing an extra level of government over autonomous member states, and there are bound to be issues of jurisdiction. I might suggest an aphorism concerning the way water fowl vocalize and perambulate.

This has been a very helpful thread for us posters outside the US. I knew vaguely about the Constitutional arrangements, but now my ignorance has been fought. :slight_smile:
Thanks, all!